I’m currently reading a fabulous book on existentialism, and I’ve written about this book in my other blog already. Last night, while reading my book, I came across this Jean-Paul Satre quote from one of his fictional pieces, translated as No Exit.

Hell is other people.


My book

Until I read about this quote yesterday, I thought that it meant that other people are hell and solitude rules uber alles. I think that most people may have the same belief. I’ve often heard it used in that context.

At the time, as he was being misinterpreted even while he was still active, Satre refuted this meaning the book explains. Yet, this meaning seems to have stuck even until today.

The quote

What he actually meant with this quote rings very true with me. He didn’t mean that other people are hellish. What he meant was that after we die, we become frozen, or the idea of us does, in the eyes of other people. In other words, once we are dead, our reputation is mummified and we are no longer able to argue against other people’s interpretation of us or prove them wrong should we feel that they are under a false impression of us.

In death, the freedom to redeem ourselves in the eyes of others is taken away from us. This idea kills me, ironically.

I often wrestle with myself after being with other people about what impression I may have left on them. If I feel that I’ve messed up in some way, then I long to see them again to provide a better impression. I think this comes from a desperate need to be liked which I have always had. I know that a lot of people are similarly inflicted in this way and I’m by no means unique here. There is probably some psychological reason for this behaviour. I’m not going to go there here though.

Some people claim to not care whether they are liked or not. I’m not like that. I care. I care an awful lot. I really want to be liked. I admire those ‘I don’t care’ people. I especially admire those who are honest about this aspect of their personality. I mean, they are risking not being liked by expressing that! They are much stronger beings than I.

There haven’t been many people that have openly disliked me, at least to my knowledge (there are most likely those that have kept their disdain to themselves or just to their nearest and dearest). I can think of two people who have been open and persistent in their disregard for my wonderfulness. And I still think about them today.

The first was someone I knew at university. For the sake of anonymity I will name him Chicken Pie. That wasn’t his real name of course. He had a real name (and a really unusual one at that). He was very open about who he liked and respected in his circle of acquaintances and who he didn’t. He was fairly clear that he neither liked me nor respected me. He thought I was unhinged. He didn’t understand me. He didn’t attempt to understand me. He thought such a pursuit was pointless. Chicken Pie considered me a potentially dangerous sociopath. I tried really, really hard to get him to like me. It didn’t work. I didn’t want to give up. I tried for two years. I liked him. He was intelligent and quirky. I cried over his open dislike of me. I spent far too long trying to analyse how he came to his assessment of me. I even concluded that he was right and perhaps I was slightly unhinged and psychotic. His opinion of me (and he was an extremely astute person) was important to me and I believed it to be genuine. I took it seriously. I lost touch with him after university (after all, he didn’t like me so there was no need for us to stay in touch) but I then met him by chance at a party a few years later. He was charm on a stick at the party. Perhaps maturity had made him less honest for the sake of social grace, or perhaps he had decided I was tolerable after all. I hope the latter.

The city where not everyone liked me.

The second person who didn’t hide their contempt of me is someone I went interrailing with. In 1991 I went travelling around Europe with an ex-boyfriend (yes, I know, a strange thing to do) and his female friend from his college. She didn’t like me. I will call her Steak and Ale Pie. She started off the journey tolerating me. She even laughed at my jokes. She gradually grew more and more hostile to me as the month went on. I have no idea (and 30 years later I still have no idea) why. At the end Steak and Ale Pie was downright nasty to me. She told me I was vain (because I bought duty-free perfume) and stupid (because I got lost a lot). She was very open in her disdain. I cried a lot over the death of that relationship as well. At the time I asked myself frequently: I didn’t dislike her so why did she dislike me so much? In the Satreian sense, there was nothing I could do to change her impression of me. Everything I did got on her nerves and encouraged negative comment. We parted without so much as a smile. I went home and made water. I often wonder where she is now. I find myself genuinely caring about what happened to her. She wasn’t a bad person, she was just mean to me.

Steak and Ale Pie hated me in this city

I am now a lot older and I still feel this desperate need to get everyone I meet to like me. I think it is a sign of maturity to accept your faults and realise that you are not to everyone’s taste and move on. So why can’t I do that? I don’t know that answer. I am still the child who wants the grownups to think they are interesting. I think this need is too deeply embedded to change, even if I recognise it as a fault.

Hell is indeed other people.

I hope I don’t die today. I am sure I have much redeeming to do yet.